Monday, July 30, 2012

London 2012 displays the best and worst of the UK.

With the Olympics a few days old now, it is already clear what kind of face Britain has shown to the rest of world. As might be expected, foreigners have been given, in the sphere of the Olympics, the psychology of Britain in a microcosm.

London as a choice of venue for the Olympics in the 21st century was always going to have its critics, from Londoners themselves, probably most of all. And Londoners have some fair reasons for complaint. But first, let's deal with the positives that people give for endorsing London as a "natural" choice as an Olympic host city.
Those in support of London 2012 talk about London as "the world's city": like New York, the other great Anglophone metropolis of the world, London is a multi-cultural melting-pot, and a demonstration of what good things can be achieved from globalisation. In other words, London and New York are, almost without doubt, the two world cities that most symbolise globalisation; and it seems no coincidence that they both happen to be the two greatest cities of the two Anglophone powers in the world. Globalisation, therefore, can be said to be best represented by the Anglo-Saxons. The British Empire's long legacy from both sides of the Atlantic is to have been the brainchild of what we know as globalisation today.

London as "the world's city" is the main reason given for those supporting London's host status. Other reasons include things like British people's passion for sport; British people's natural openness to foreigners (given the first positive earlier); London's ability to provide the logistical support and organisation, and the right venues and settings for an Olympic host city. These points may well all be true to an extent, but each  has a flip side, which I'll talk about in a moment.

As I said, Londoners were probably amongst the first sceptics/cynics towards the optimism created around London's hosting of the Olympics. The status as "the world's city" is probably without dispute, barring New York, which I think puts London/ New York on an equal (even attached) status as the "twin" Anglophone metropolises of globalisation.
Londoners' main concern about hosting the Olympics was logistical, and has been shown to be justified, as we have seen so far: the traffic caused by the Olympics has been crippling in some areas, as well as causing a huge strain on an ancient metro system. These were issues that were not properly resolved before the bid was put forward, and had not been dealt with in the seven years leading up to the event itself. All this was predicted, and little was really done about it, except to encourage Londoners to either go abroad on holiday for two weeks, go to another part of the UK, or go out into the city as little as possible. Not exactly an advert for "British organisation" when your plan is more-or-less to cross your fingers and hope that nothing goes wrong!

I talked about the "flip side" to some of the positive reasons given for London 2012.

One reason was Britain's sporting enthusiasm. Yes, British people are passionate about sport; but there's a big difference between being passionate and being good at it. The thing that sadly distinguishes Britain from many other "great" sporting countries is how less seriously we take sport as an undertaking. This comes from the top and passes down through the psychology of Brits themselves. Apart from the introduction of lottery funding (saving British Olympic sport from becoming a continual laughing stock; one reason why we only got one gold medal in Atlanta 1996, before the lottery funding seriously kicked in), which has masked the government's underfunding to an extent, Britain's government spends much less than other comparably-sized nations (let alone the likes of Australia!) on sport as an investment. If anything, with the selling-off of public playing fields and the like over the years, the government has been allowed to do this because of British people's psychology. This is because Britain as a nation seems disregarding of taking sport too seriously: a game of "gentlemen amateurs" is still the prevailing mentality amongst many people, which any other nation would think belongs in the 19th century. As a result, sport is not taken as a serious profession, unless you want to be a top-class footballer - and even then, the natives have to compete against "more glamorous" foreigners who Brits prefer to see play rather than their own.
So no wonder Britain is still lagging behind the rest of the world in Olympic achievement - much of the British success is made in spite of being British, not because of it.

These are the main issues before even the Olympics had started. But what we have seen since are stories that are even more revealing.
There was the G4S scandal, which showed how the country is really ran to the world: badly. An Olympic host city, whose government sold a massive security contract to a company who then completely failed to provide the required number of staff, causing the government to rely on soldiers who had been on their hard-earned holiday, as well as police who are already fully-stretched as it is by their own government. The government would have saved more money if they had just used the police to begin with (as the police chief explained the cost ratios), but the government were determined to sell off this role to a private company which ministers had shares in. This was a pathetic fiasco worthy of a banana republic.
Then there's is other issues surrounding the government's cowardice to the Olympic committee over ticketing and logistics. Because the Olympics is essentially a huge multinational-backed sporting event, the companies involved want as many tickets for venues as they can get. The government therefore allowed them masses of tickets, at the expense of ordinary sports fans. But because the companies themselves are not really interested in "sport", only what money they can get out of it, the result is half-empty venues because many seats are reserved for "absentee" sponsors who want the tickets, either just for the sake of it, or to sell-on at an inflated profit to someone desperate enough to pay the massively over-the-odds price. This is where internet ticketing companies like "Ticketmaster" and the like come into play.
And because the Brits can be such "jobsworths" when it comes to following the rules, no matter how insane or unfair, they refuse to sell the tickets to the general public, or let in people for free just to fill the venue for the sake of it, or allow non-sponsor approved products into the venues. This is another of the "flip sides" to British "organisation": when following the rules, we can act too much like sheep.
Then there's the issue of the "ZiL Lanes": again, the government's genuflection to Olympic corporate interests means that whole parts of London have become virtual no-go areas for cars, as well as other major routes being reduced by the "Olympic lanes"; and again, because some British people are so scared of breaking the rules they even don't use the "Olympic lanes" when they could (out of hours), they make a bad situation worse.
To add farce to the organisational fiasco, I read that some keys to Wembley stadium have gone missing. Let's hope that no-one planning anything unpleasant finds them...

To end on a positive note, the great highlight so far has been, ironically, the opening ceremony. The choice of Danny Boyle, famous director and a working-class Lancashire lad, was inspired, because his background would bring a more balanced and broader perspective to the event than someone from metropolitan London. What was even more extraordinary, was that no-one except for Boyle himself and those directly involved in the event, knew what the full schedule would involve. He had sole knowledge and control of the event; a blank cheque to display his talent and vision as he saw fit.
The event was at times jaw-dropping in its ambition and spectacle; more like watching a live motion picture, happening right before your eyes, than just a public event; you never knew what twist of the story to expect next - precisely the intention of Boyle, no doubt. Boyle managed to achieve in that hour-plus of energy and analogy, more than has been seen at any previous Olympic opening ceremony. It is doubtful that any other organiser would have been able to achieve the effect that Boyle did on Friday night in the stadium, or at any future Olympic opening event.
Boyle did indeed succeed in telling a story, live before our eyes, and in such as way that only someone as inventive and bold as he could have. This was Boyle displaying the very best of Britain to the world, in an hour-long spectacle that summarised it into a microcosm of nostalgia, energy, egalitarianism, inventiveness, and diversity.

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